Cyclocross events are some of the most social of the racing calendar and present the ideal opportunity to retain fitness in the off season if you can't face being a slave to the turbo trainer.
While pared down tourers and mountain bikes are equally welcome at most events, 'cross specific machines are lighter and have the competitive edge. Given the season is comparatively short, 'cross bikes are often regarded as second mounts that need to be very adaptable, frequently doubling as winter trainers, commuters and/or light tourers. The Focus tested here is offered at the highly competitive sub £700 price point.
Frame: well engineered, good detailing Focus has designed the Mares Cross in conjunction with 2005 world 'cross champion Hanka Kupfernagel. At the heart of the bike lies a super stiff 6061 aluminium chassis - not the last word in comfort, perhaps, but just what's needed for competitive racing. TIG welds are uniformly neat and there's some very aggressive gusseting where the down-tube and head-tube meet - the frame is unlikely to fail any time soon. A drain hole is drilled in the bottom bracket shell and, coupled with the absence of a chainstay bridge, is a clear sign of its racing pedigree.
Two sets of bottle mounts and mudguard eyelets at the fork are the only immediate concessions to road use and you'll need to go the P-clip route if you've designs on it doubling as a winter trainer/commuter. Closer inspection reveals surprisingly good attention to detail - the seatpost came out cleanly, revealing a well reamed seat-tube, and removing both sets of bottle screws suggested the frame had been chased through properly. The two- tone matt black and clear frame finish grew on me, enhancing its race credentials, and seems reasonably durable to boot. The bike employs the standard mountain bike 'guitar string' cable configuration across the top-tube
Carbon forks barely raise an eyebrow these days and carbon blades with alloy steerers strike a good balance between weight and reliability. The annoying but obligatory 'lawyers' tabs might stop your front wheel falling out if your skewer isn't done up properly but can prove frustrating and cost valuable seconds in the event of a mid-race puncture. Focus has chosen to hide the precious carbon weave under a colour co-ordinated paint scheme, with the blades enjoying a rounded profile and huge clearances around the crown area even with 35mm 'cross tyres.
Equipment: competent kit, on road and off The Focus has a Shimano 105 transmission with its predictably reliable shifting. However, while 105 provides 10-speed gearing, 9-speed offers better mud clearance and so it could be argued that Tiagra is actually preferable when it comes to cyclocross.
The Isis two-piece cranks seem commendably stiff and while braking power is strong, the modulation from the Tektro mini Vs fitted to the Focus weren't quite up to speed. There's oodles of clearance around the frameset but in really muddy situations the arms are more prone to attracting mud than old-school cantilver brakes. The Focus has auxiliary brake levers which are a nice touch, offering a familiar position for anyone making the transition from mountain bikes. As well as making tricky, technical situations less daunting, they also provide a more relaxed position when pottering along towpaths or on off season training runs.
The Concept finishing kit, in the main seems very serviceable: a black two-bolt stem grips a wide Deda bar making for a suitably rigid front end for all but the heaviest of riders. The silver bar tape might look a little 'tart's handbag' but quickly grew on us, providing good insulation from trail buzz and rough roads, and having the very practical advantage of being easy to clean.
Wheels: smooth, sprighly and sturdy Focus has opted for the time-honoured 32-hole, three-cross pattern and basic but worthy double-walled Alex hoops laced to 105 hubs, which build into a surprisingly smooth, sprightly and sturdy wheelset. Purposely clumsy encounters through ruts, potholes and even shallow steps failed to knock them out of true. Schwalbe Racing Ralphs are 700c versions of the popular MTB rubber and make for very efficient progress through muddy conditions, although they can be persuaded to squirm a little if cornering hard on concrete.
Handling: racing heritage in evidence Swing a leg over the Focus and you're immediately aware of its race pedigree. It might feel a little direct if you've come from a diet of steel frames but it isn't overly harsh and will delight on the climbs thanks to the stiffness around the bottom bracket and cockpit areas. The head-tube is comparatively short and allows some scope for optimum handlebar positioning.
It's a breeze to ride through more technical sections and the renowned Racing Ralph tyres have a sufficiently large pocket of air to cushion against most of the trailside mistakes you're likely to make. Provoked on long, uneven descents it refused to be shaken off line, and the fitment of auxiliary brake levers offers a competitive edge over the similarly priced Raleigh on more technical sections for new or seasoned rider alike (as well as the option of a more relaxed, upright position for social rides).
When fitted with road tyres, these same characteristics make for excellent town manners and the Focus's spirited handling will liven up the dullest of commutes whether you're sprinting away from the lights, filtering through traffic or swerving around errant pedestrians. Deserted lanes in the early hours quickly became a playground for weaving through the cats eyes and around confused wildlife. Even if you're not wholly sold on mini Vs for off-road duties they certainly make for solid stopping prowess - jamming on the brakes when a deer leapt in front of the bike as it thundered through deserted forest tracks, they brought it to an abrupt halt, performing an impressive endo into the bargain and allowing us to continue on our respective ways surprised but unscathed.
Verdict: At a whisker below £700 the Focus has a specification that wouldn't look out of place on machines costing £150 or so more and is a winner if you're looking at racing cyclocross competitively without maxing out the credit card. Its livery will probably be on the racy side for some, and the absence of a chainstay bridge is great when racing but a nuisance when fitting mudguards. Having said all this though, it doubles as a fantastic winter trainer/plaything.